This article is part of Owning the Future, a series on how small businesses across the country are coping with the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr. Cristiano Huscher has long used robotics and artificial intelligence for surgical procedures at the Policlinico Abano chain of hospitals in Italy. So when six doctors contracted Covid-19 at his hospital in Sardinia two months ago, he once again turned to technology — in this case, UVD Robots — to disinfect the rooms.
The robot moves autonomously through a room, using ultraviolet-C light to kill the DNA in the virus, effectively destroying it, along with bacteria.
“This robot kills 99.99 percent of viruses, bacteria and fungal spores,” Dr. Huscher, chief of oncological surgery, robotics and new technologies, said. “We don’t have any nurses, doctors or patients with coronavirus since we started to use the robots.” He expects the robots to eventually become mandatory at hospitals.
The Italian hospital chain is among a surging number of businesses rushing to adopt innovative technology to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. These include robotic dogs that monitor parks for social distancing, thermal sensors that detect fevers from 10 feet away, and hand-washing sensors.
The CARES Act, which offers funding for tech upgrades in the United States, is also spurring companies to embrace shiny new technology faster — and more willingly — than in the past.
“This is going to accelerate it,” said Victoria Petrock, principal analyst at eMarketer, a market research, data and analysis company.
Tech that uses UVC light has been particularly hot.
UVD Robots, a unit of Blue Ocean Robotics in Odense, Denmark, started developing its disinfection robots in 2014.
“Each year millions of patients are infected, and thousands of patients die, due to infections acquired during hospitalization,” said Claus Risager, co-founder and chief executive of Blue Ocean Robotics.
Mr. Risager said scientists had long lauded UVC light as a weapon against SARS, MERS and other viruses. So the company built a mobile UV Disinfection robot that can move around a room, zapping airborne viruses and bacteria from surfaces in 10 to 15 minutes. It hit the market in 2018.
“I could see its potential,” said Darren Smith, an early investor in UVD Robots from Brisbane, Australia, adding that demand has soared beyond expectations during the coronavirus. UVD Robots are now used in hospitals, airports in Southern Europe, a prison in Southeast Asia and a hotel group in Ireland, according to Per Juul Nielsen, the company’s chief executive.
Other companies making UV robots include Xenex, Tru-D, Puro Lighting and Surfacide. Many of these are stationary — rather than mobile — robots.
The ADDAMS robot, developed at the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California, goes one step further. It is equipped with a Universal Robots arm that can pick up items, open drawers, move objects and even open and close doors remotely while disinfecting the room with UV light and chemical hydrogen peroxide spray.
Prof. Satyandra K. Gupta, director of the school’s Center for Advanced Manufacturing, sees UV robots being used in hospitals, shopping malls, movie theaters, train stations, schools and grocery stores.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City recently began a pilot program to use Puro’s UV lamps overnight to clean subway cars and buses.
But UVC light can’t be blasted into rooms where people are. Prolonged exposure to it can cause skin cancer, cornea damage and other problems.
Healthe of Melbourne, Fla., has created disinfectant devices that use a different technology, far-UVC light, which scientists say is a safe version of UVC for humans. The technology uses a shorter band of wavelength that can’t penetrate the skin, and therefore won’t damage the cells and tissue under it, said David Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University. But it can still zap microbes, bacteria and viruses on surfaces and in the air.
“One of the useful properties of UV light in general is that it doesn’t distinguish between drug-resistant bacteria and drug-sensitive bacteria,” Dr. Brenner said. “All it does is damage the DNA or RNA in that bacteria and kill it,” he added, noting that, “we realized it also applied to viruses.”
Fred Maxik, a former NASA scientist and founder of Healthe, said he had been promoting the technology for about three years, but it took Covid-19 to get people to respond. “I really did believe that a pandemic of this magnitude was possible,” he said. “It sometimes takes things as terrible as this is to bring it to focus.”
Magnolia Bakery in Manhattan is installing Healthe’s far-UVC tech devices at two of its retail locations.
Then there’s Spot, a robotic dog built by Boston Dynamics, which wanders around a popular park in Singapore, enforcing social distancing rules. The robot, which has sensors and a 360-degree camera, is steered around the park remotely and uses its built-in speaker to play a recorded message when it comes across people defying social-distancing rules.
Sensors and wearable IoT (internet of things) devices are also big in the coronavirus battle.
Triax Technologies of Norwalk, Conn., makes sensors for construction sites. Its Spot-r sensor, worn on a belt, automates the check in/check out process, which eliminates the need for workers to line up at entry-points or turnstiles. It also tracks workers on a job site, gets notification of a fall and allows workers to report emergencies by pushing a button.
In April, Triax added a new device, Proximity Trace, that beeps if employees stand less than six feet from each other. It also tracks a worker’s daily movements: If the virus is found in a worker, the tracker can identify the people and equipment that might have been exposed to the infected person.
Updated June 12, 2020
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
How does blood type influence coronavirus?
A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.
Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?
Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.
How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?
Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.
My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?
States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
The Gilbane Building Company, based in Providence, R.I., started using Spot-r sensors at many of its construction sites three years ago, and then added the proximity tracers in April.
“When Spot-r first came onboard three years ago there was some pushback — it was seen as kind of a Big Brother device,” said Michael McKelvy, president and chief executive of Gilbane. “But those apprehensions are no longer the case.”
But Ms. Petrock urged caution. “When you start collecting personal data, companies are going to have to start treading very carefully.”
Temperature sensors are also in demand.
Hitachi created a device that detects elevated body temperature from up to 10 feet away. It has infrared cameras that allow a company to flag someone with a high body temperature, giving the business a chance to pull aside high-risk people for secondary screenings or quarantine before they enter a property.
Justin Bean, global director of Smart Spaces Marketing at Hitachi, said he believed temperature scans could become the new normal at airport and train stations — the way the confiscation of nail files and water bottles at airport checkpoints became the norm after 9/11.
Then there’s Hitachi’s automated hand-washing monitoring device, which detects whether workers wash their hands sufficiently — for at least 20 seconds — in a company restroom. The device monitors activity and provides the data — without names — to managers.
But are these tech devices temporary tools, to be tossed away when the pandemic passes?
Mr. Risager noted that there had been three outbreaks of serious viruses — SARS, MERS and Covid-19 — over the past two decades.
“This is the third in 20 years — it’s not something unusual — it’s just unusual that we didn’t manage to contain this one,” he said. “This will not just be forgotten.”